This is an audio case brief of West v. Commonwealth, 935 S.W. 2d 315 (Ky. Ct. App. 1996). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
Lillian West was born with Down’s Syndrome and a heart ailment. Throughout most of her life, she was cared for by her mother, Rebekah West. In 1979, Lillian and her mother moved in with her bother Russel and his wife Ann. At that time, Lillian participated in activities at Pathway Shelter, a local health organization that provided services to mentally handicapped persons. Activities at this day program encouraged Lillian to develop a more independent lifestyle. For example, with appropriate prompting, she could groom herself, participate in vocational training, and function in social settings. In 1983, Rebekah, Lillian’s mother, passed away, and Russell and Ann accepted responsibility for Lillian’s care.
According to Russell, he later became concerned that Lillian was being abused in some manner at Pathway Shelter. He notified personnel there that Lillian would not continue to participate in the program.
In 1992, near thanks giving, according to Russell, Lillian became confined to her bed. He testified that it was at this time that her condition began to decline significantly and that she would not eat. On December that same year, Russell delivered Lillian to the emergency room at Mary Chiles Hospital in Montgomery County.
The physician tending to Lillian, Dr. David Gagnon, was alarmed by her condition and discussed the situation with Russell. Unnerved by the conversation, Gagnon referred the matter to a local social worker, who undertook an investigation of the circumstances surrounding Lillian’s home environment.
On January 17, 1993, Lillian died at University of Kentucky Medical Center. She was fifty- four years old.
About two months after her death, Russell was indicted for manslaughter in the second degree; Ann was indicted as a complicitor. The indictments were consolidated for trial. At trial, medical witnesses recounted Lillian’s horrific physical condition, describing numerous decubitus ulcers (pressure or bedsores) in various stages of development (many severe enough to reveal muscle tissue and even bone), severe malnutrition, and the presence of dried tears and feces upon her body. Physicians attributed the cause of death to sepsis and confluent bronchial pneumonia precipitated by the decubitus ulcers. They testified that caretaker neglect led ultimately to Lillian’s death.
Russel and his wife Ann were found guilty of reckless homicide and were each sentenced to one year in prison. They both appealed their convictions.
The issue is whether Russel and Ann had a legal duty to provide care for Lillian West so that when an omission of such duty leads to her death, Russel and Ann could be criminally liable.
A person is not guilty of a criminal offense unless:
(1) He has engaged in conduct which concludes a voluntary act or the omission to perform a duty which the law imposes upon him and which he is physically capable of performing; and
(2) He has engaged in such conduct intentionally, knowingly, wantonly or recklessly as the law may require, with respect to each element of the offense.
Russel and Ann argued that they did not owe a legal duty to care for Lillian or provide her with medical assistance. Therefore, neither of them could be convicted based on a failure to provide such care.
The court disagreed.
The court found that Russel and Ann were voluntary caretakers of Lillian. The two voluntarily assumed her care and therefore owed a duty to her.
The Kentucky caretaker statute imposed a legal duty of care on Russel and Ann for Lillian. The statute reads in relevant part;
Caretaker” means an individual or institution who has the responsibility for the care of the adult as a result of family relationship, or who has assumed the responsibility for the care of the adult person voluntarily, or by contract, or agreement . . .
There are at least four situations in which the failure to act may constitute breach of a legal duty. One can be held criminally liable:
Russell met the last of the tests particularly aptly in voluntarily accepting responsibility for Lillian’s care and thereafter isolating her from contacts that might have resulted in her aid or assistance. Additionally, Kentucky’s Protection of Adults statutes impose a duty on adult caretakers to avoid the abuse, neglect, and exploitation of their charges. Contrary to the appellants’ suggestions, we find that Russell’s duty of care is well-grounded in the law.
Russel and Ann’s convictions were affirmed because they both owed a legal duty to care for Lillian, and the omission of such a duty directly led to Lillian’s death.
** The Act (actus Reus) element of a crime constitute and act (in the ordinary meaning) and failure to act where a person is physically capable of performing such act.